The nerve, questioning our nerve
Posted at 12:17 PM on May 7, 2007 by Bill Wareham (3 Comments)
Former PiPress scribe Brian Lambert has an interesting column in the latest issue of The Rake in which he analyzes the competitive landscape of local journalism, using coverage of the Minnesota U.S. Attorney office to make his point. Mr. Lambert even gives MPR News a nod:
The Twin Cities have the unique advantage of Minnesota Public Radio’s presence, with its comparatively large reporting staff. But MPR’s game is depth, not breadth. More to the point, MPR lacks the nerve to lead on a story like this, what with the first-ever female U.S. attorney in Minnesota—and a minority at that—as the central figure.
Um, thanks for the backhanded compliment, but I have to take issue with the "lacks the nerve" assessment.
As far as I can tell, no newsroom has been able to lead on this story (which is one of Lambert's central points), but from our perspective it hasn't been from lack of trying. As far as I can tell from searching the Star Tribune, Pioneer Press and MPR News archives, MPR reporter Elizabeth Stawicki was the first to ask former U.S. Attorney Tom Heffelfinger whether he was or had reason to believe he might've been part of the Justice Department's purge. That was mid-March; neither paper seems to have gotten around to that question until April.
Stawicki also reported on April 16 that a U.S. House panel was interested in talking to Heffelfinger's replacement Rachel Paulose, and I'm relatively certain she beat the papers by at least a few hours. On April 23 she reported on Paulose's relatively low public profile.
Do I wish we could dig deeper on this story? Heck, yes. But does our reporting bear the marks of an organization that doesn't have the nerve to cover this story? I don't think so.
We're facing the same obstacles that are apparently bedeviling our competition: closely held confidential documents, reticence on the part of knowledgeable sources, and so on.
So, Brian, I wish you would pay a little closer attention to what we're doing before you "compliment" us again.
While Lambert's direct criticism of "nerve" might be off the mark for MPR's coverage of the suspected connection of Paulose to the Attorney purge, it's not hard to see why he thinks MPR is guilty, along with the Strib and PiPress, of omission on the issue.
In the search of MPR's on-line reports, aside from the two quick looks by Stawicki, you must've seen that the only other coverage of Paulose and her office are in the Polinaut's brief digests -- despite the fact that there have been indications of a bigger story.
Even Stawicki's irrelevantly quote-filled reports fail to mention Paulose was a DOJ loyalist who was appointed with a thin resume and little management experience, who nonetheless retained her important position for nine months before confirmation (which almost didn't happen because of lack of initial backing by her hometown Senators), and who experienced subsequent troubles running her office.
All of this information has been an open secret for some time -- without any obstacles. Was Heffelfinger forced out? As reported, so far the answer is no. But does that mean nothing more newsworthy went on that MPR skipped past? No.
And for God's sake, don't think MPR scooping the STrib and PiPress is worth touting.
There are indications of a bigger story, and we've been trying to get at it. It's tough with no staff in DC, where the information seems to be, but we'll keep trying.
My point was that folks like Lambert (and he's by no means alone) shouldn't write us off as a non-factor in coverage of stories like this. Even after the Strib trims 50 people from its news staff that newsroom will still be about six times larger than ours, yet we'll try to keep pace with them on important stories. We may not do it every day on every story, but when the "depth over breadth" reputation is used to dismiss us, it does matter to me when we do scoop the competition.
Thanks for your feedback.
Posted by Bill Wareham | May 7, 2007 5:39 PM
I think what surprises me most about the coverage of this story is the apparent revelation that nobody in the Twin Cities media has managed to develop a source in the US Attorney's office. I'm not talking about the Paulose office - I'm talking about the US Attorney's office in downtown Minneapolis. The one that's been there for years, from which all federal prosecutions in the state are run.
That's just amazing to me. I don't want to tell anyone how to do their job, but it would seem to me - and I'm a journalist myself - that some effort would have been made over the years to cultivate some folks in that office.
Posted by Adam | May 10, 2007 7:03 PM